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There is a lot of promise in Ethiopia’s development says Norway’s departing Ambassador to Ethiopia H.E. Mr. Odd-Inge Kvalheim as he sits down to talk with Capital’s Teguest Yilma. Ambassador Kvalheim steps down after having served in Addis for almost four years. Every year the Norwegian National Day (May 17th) is celebrated in Ethiopia. But this year it held special significance as the Scandinavian country celebrated the 200th anniversary of their constitution. Ambassador Kvalheim talks about how much he has enjoyed his stay here and offers comparisons on each nation’s developmental journey.

Capital: You have been Ambassador of Norway to Ethiopia, the African Union and Djibouti for almost four years now. Now that you are getting ready to leave, how do you assess your almost four-year- stay here?
Ambassador Odd-Inge Kvalheim:
For me this has been very interesting, in the original meaning of the word. Before coming to Addis, I served as a political counselor in Washington DC, which is a large diplomatic hub. So is Addis. However, the work to support the development of Ethiopia and the AU has in many ways been more practical and results-oriented. And we are seeing the results! In a few years Ethiopia has moved from being a minor cooperation partner for Norway, to being on our top ten list!  And the importance of the AU – on the continent, and as a global player – is now much more understood in our country.
But it is a tough job because we now have such a large volume of engagement both with Ethiopia and the Africa Union. 
Capital: What would you say were the positive and negative aspects that impacted the relationship between the two countries?
Amb. Kvalheim:
I am proud of the strengthened cooperation with Ethiopia and the AU. However, I would have liked to see more business and investment relations between Ethiopia and Norway but it takes two to tango. Norwegian investors and trading partners see many challenges in Ethiopia, such as lack of transparency and stability in rules and regulations, a slow and cumbersome bureaucracy etc. However, things are changing and more sectors are being liberalized. What I convey to Norwegian businesses is that if they enter the Ethiopian market early, there may be a higher risk – but also higher benefits. I believe that there is a lot of potential for increased private sector cooperation.
On the Ethiopian side a lot can be done to facilitate more foreign investment and there is a need for a few small adjustments like less complicated bureaucracy, less complicated regulations and more transparency when it comes to those regulations. If there is more foreign investment it will fuel the development of Ethiopia.
Capital: What’s your take on the region’s stability? Specifically Eritrea, Somalia and South Sudan?
Amb. Kvalheim:
It is easier for a country to develop when it does it at the same pace or in partnership with its neighbor. For example Sweden has a completely different industrial composition from Norway, they get income from a different source than Norway but they have a similar economic model and development in terms of values and the same is true for Denmark. Ethiopia is in a totally opposite situation. It is an island of stability in a very unstable neighborhood. You mention some of the countries that are unstable. When you look at the neighborhood there are different models of governance with different ways of doing things and they don’t have unity in diversity. Many have disunity and conflicts related to diversity. In South Sudan if you look at the oil income in that country and then if you look around Juba and the rest of country you won’t see infrastructural projects such as roads, hospitals etc. Somalia’s development is being hampered by conflict and recurrent droughts. Regarding Eritrea, I have visited refugee camps many times in northern Ethiopia where groups of unaccompanied youth and children cross the border every day. This is all a challenge for Ethiopia – the wider the gap in terms of development – the more of a security challenge it is.  Norway experienced some of this at our northern border with Russia after the fall of the Iron Curtain, where the gap in income and development was large. Conversely, when you have stability and development in a whole region you have the opportunity of trade and peaceful relationships which benefits all.
Capital: You have been a strong supporter of women’s rights and development here in Ethiopia. Why is that? Is it because a high number of women are in governmental positions in Norway? 
Amb. Kvalheim:
It’s first and foremost a matter of values – of solidarity. Whether man or woman, we are first and foremost human beings and our lives are intertwined. Women are half of the population – and half of the voters in a democracy. To ensure equal rights for women, a mix of political decisions, resources, incentives and rules and regulations have to be applied. I like the story of the five year old girl in Norway, who – during the time when Gro Harlem Brundland was Prime Minister in Norway – asked her mother whether a man could be Prime Minister! She had only experienced a female Prime Minister – and it shows the power of example for a new generation. Men’s attitudes also change when they see that changing roles brings opportunities. Equality is also an economic question; studies show that the economic value of women’s participation adds more value to Norway’s economy than our oil and gas!
But it requires hard and dedicated work over time to change the conditions for women. Although Norway’s constitution was considered progressive at the time of adoption in 1814, women achieved the right to vote in 1913. It is only in the last decades that we have experienced the real “game changing” changes. Equality is also an unfinished business in Norway.
Capital: What’s your take on Ethiopia’s Growth and Transformation Plan?
Amb. Kvalheim:
First of all, the GTP is for Ethiopia by Ethiopians. It is not a plan to be made by foreign actors. For a country to have its own comprehensive development plan is of key importance – experience shows that international development cooperation is ineffective if there is not this kind of ownership by the country itself. So as an Ambassador I will not say that you should do it this way or that way. It is not a productive role and I know how Norwegians would react if foreign countries tried to influence the direction of our own development.  As partners we offer support – also through a political dialogue where we can learn from each other’s experience. For example; in the 50s and 60s the state owned a larger part of industry and businesses in Norway. Over time we moved to a system of indirect involvement of the state through regulations and taxation. This was a journey of many – both positive and negative – lessons learned. I believe this is a potent area for dialogue between our two countries. Another example is that Norway – in a globalizing world – is moving from being culturally homogenous, to being a country of diversity. Here we have a lot to learn from Ethiopia.
Norway and Ethiopia have a particular strong partnership in the area of Climate Change and Clean Energy. Ethiopia has decided to follow a development path where the goals of the GTP are to be achieved without increasing its carbon emissions. This is a progressive goal that deserves support. Climate change is a global challenge, and it is in Norway’s interest to cooperate with countries who can further a progressive agenda on the world stage. I believe it is also in Ethiopia’s interest. Deforestation, for example, is a big problem every year and the soil erosion during the rainy season is tremendous in terms of agriculture so working on this issue together makes a lot of sense. The same holds for building train lines.
Capital: What do you think about Genetically Modified seeds?
Amb. Kvalheim:
In Norway they are illegal. We do not import or grow genetically manipulated crops.
Capital: You recently passed a law regarding refugees. It requires people to leave the country if they don’t qualify for refugee status.  There has been big opposition to this from the Ethiopian community there. What is your comment on that?
Amb. Kvalheim:
Basically there is no law that has been passed on this, so that is not accurate information. But Norway has return agreements with many countries, including Ethiopia. Those who are found to have reasons for it, do get an asylum. But some are not found to have reasons for seeking protection. The return agreement with Ethiopia provides substantial financial support for those who return to their country of origin and we follow up with them on how they are doing upon return.
Many people from poorer countries wants to emigrate to Norway, many more than we could accommodate. The question then becomes – who gets to stay? This can only be decided through clear laws and regulations that are applied equally – not by who has the best strategies to avoid these regulations. It is important to underline that asylum cannot be a vehicle for escaping poverty – only development can do that.
Capital: Ethiopia is at a cross roads now, with development, transformation and success stories. The country is going through a lot of change. What would be your departing message for the people of Ethiopia?
Amb. Kvalheim:
A country does not achieve its goals overnight. For Norway it was a long journey. Any country that develops, will regularly find itself at crossroads where choices have to be made- economically and socially. My advice to Ethiopians is to be both patient and impatient. Being impatient in terms of building and creating a better society, and on the other hand be patient when it comes to its results – because change does not happen overnight. Each generation must build on the achievements of the previous one. As an example; each year there are now several hundred thousands of students coming out of the universities of Ethiopia, they will have new demands and expectations about the future of the country – and their role in it. .     
Capital: What will you miss most about Ethiopia when you leave?
Amb. Kvalheim:
The people! The people I have met and gotten to know. In one of my favorite books that has been a best seller around the world entitled ‘Cutting for Stone’ written by Abraham Verghese, when the main character talks about the Ethiopians, he refers to them as:
“Reserved, excessively formal, often gloomy, thinking the worst; they were quick to anger, quick to imagine insults to their pride. As for theories of conspiracy and the most terrible pessimism, surely they’d cornered the world market on those. But get past all those superficial attributes, and you find people who were supremely intelligent, loving, hospitable, and generous.”
And that is how I feel too. The individuals that I have met in Addis and around Ethiopia; just the way people are: generous, hospitable and loving; that is what I will miss the most.